Craig and Linda Martin are world-travelling Kiwis, blogging and podcasting at the award-winning Indie Travel Podcasts. ...Find out more!
"We have a little of everything," the old woman said in rapid Spanish, holding my arm. "There's chicken, there's pork, there's sausages, there's even..." she paused, and I wasn't sure if it was for emphasis or to find the word. "...cow," she finished. Craig and I looked at each other. "Okay," we said.
We were in Encarnación, Paraguay, a small city in a country dwarfed by its larger neighbours Argentina and Brazil. Encarnación itself is in the south of the country, just across the river from Posadas, Argentina and its major attraction are the Unesco World Heritage-listed Jesuit ruins that lie about 30km out of town.
We had arrived the day before, sweating on an unairconditioned bus and planning to stay just two nights in the city, visiting the ruins on the day between them. However, we woke up to thunderstorms and temperatures 20 degrees lower than the day before; we stayed in bed, venturing out at about 1pm in search of lunch.
We found it across the road from our hotel, in a comedor located behind the bus station. We knew it was a comedor because large signs on the outside of the squat brick building proclaimed it to be so; and since "comedor" means "dining room" (and apparently "food court" too), we knew we were onto a good thing.
The building was arranged around an open courtyard, and tiny kitchens occupied the walls. Huge Coca-Cola signs proclaimed the name of the establishment and what number stall they occupied. In the covered way between the kitchen and the courtyard was a forest of plastic tables and chairs, some with tablecloths that fluttered in the breeze. It was uncharacteristically cold for that time of year, but the barbecues fashioned from old metal barrels warmed the air a little. Narrow chimneys attached to the barbecues ferried the smoke above the roof of the covered way when the lid was shut. However, the lids opened towards the diners and were often left open, leaving the smoke to waft among the tables. The upside of this meant visitors could see what was on offer.
The first stall only seemed to be serving greasy chicken; the next, overcooked steak. We wound our way among the tables and turned the corner to look at the restaurants on the far side of the building. An older woman several stalls down saw us coming and gestured to us enthusiastically. Sure, she does that with everyone but it felt personal. "She wants us to eat at her restaurant," I said to Craig. "I'm sure she does," he replied dryly.
After her glowing description of her wares, and more importantly, a glance inside her barbecue, we could hardly resist. We ordered a plate to share and it arrived piled high with quarter of a chicken, a large piece of pork, a sausage, and a tomato and lettuce salad. No sign of the cow, which was probably just as well. We were also given a plate of cassava, more than we could possibly eat between us; and this was just one serving. Our bottle of Coke came accompanied by mugs fashioned from old cans - mine was, appropriately, a Coke can, but Craig's used to hold beer.
The food was delicious but the experience was about more than just the food. The wind whipped coldly around our shoulders, threatening to take our paper napkins with it. Bad Spanish music blared from every stall, crackling on the speakers and clashing with the music from the stall next door. The smell of meat roasting permeated everything, wafting from the barrel barbecues with their odd chimneys. We glanced around to see that all of Doña Eli's tables were taken; we'd obviously chosen correctly. And we knew where to come for lunch tomorrow.